Let's suppose that your remote ancestor lived in Berks County, Pennsylvania in 1780. How do you go about finding information about this ancestor online? Obviously, you need to become aware of the ancestor's existence by doing research back to this point in your pedigree. But more importantly, you need to have an understanding of the process of researching historical records and be able to find and identify records that may contain information about your ancestor. If you are familiar with online research, you are already aware of the time-saving convenience of having those records available on your own local computer. Let's further assume that you have done enough research to be reasonably sure that this particular ancestor lived in that particular county.
As a side note, one of the most common fatal flaws in historical research (i.e. genealogical research) is the failure to adequately document specific places, but that is the subject of another blog post. If you want an illustration of this principle, just go back through your present genealogical research and verify that every county named actually existed at the time of the event you have listed in your research.
Most researchers would dive right in at this point and begin doing searches for the ancestor by name, date and place in online database programs such as Ancestry.com. Since this is my hypothetical situation, let's suppose you choose to search on Ancestry.com. How do you know whether or not Ancestry.com has any records from Berks County during that time period? Well, you might look in the Ancestry.com Card Catalog that lists all of the Ancestry.com record collections. If you did, you would see a list of about 52 record collections after filtering the records by place and time. The records would fall into these categories:
- Census & Voter Lists 1
- Birth, Marriage & Death 5
- Newspapers & Publications 1
- Stories, Memories & Histories 44
- Maps, Atlases & Gazetteers 1
- Schools, Directories & Church Histories 21
- Tax, Criminal, Land & Wills 3
- Reference, Dictionaries & Almanacs 1
If you were a careful researcher with some experience, you would then search each of these 52 databases individually, although you would note that some of these "collections" have as few as 6 records, so they can be searched rather completely and rather quickly. Now what?
You could do the same thing again with other online database programs such as FamilySearch.org etc. Now what?
The point here is that you are basically looking for the same information in the same way but merely moving from one pile of records to another pile of records. The answer to your quandary is staring you in the face. Your first efforts at searching for records on Ancestry.com gave you a filtered list of the types of records that may have information about your ancestor in a particular time and place, in this case, Berks County, Pennsylvania in about 1780. So now, if you are a very seasoned researcher, your investigation takes a turn. You begin to search for these types of records online. You could do this my using the list of 52 records as a sample of the search terms you might find.
Another side note. You will, of course, already done a Google search for your ancestor's name and all the variations of the name to see if someone has already put this person's genealogy online. But that is so obvious, I am sure you would have already done that.
Now, continuing with this extended hypothetical, you begin searching online for records similar to those found in Ancestry.com (or whatever other sources you find). In this case, the first collection in the Ancestry.com list of filtered results is this collection:
Now this title becomes your search term on Google. That search using that the words in the title to that particular collection returns a surprising list of over 40,000 results. Here is a screenshot of some of the results:
That first pass at a search keeps you happily employed in doing research for a few hours (or days or weeks). What have you accomplished? Most researchers, in my experience, when faced with a list such as the one I got from the first record collection listed on Ancestry.com would feel like they were swimming in the ocean out of the sight of land. But in reality, the records are going to be mostly pertinent. Will you find your ancestor's name etc. immediately? Maybe, maybe not. The point here is to begin focussing on records and places and times rather than just names and specific dates. Note that the first entry on the screenshot is the record on Ancestry.com that you will have already searched. But the next entry is from the FamilySearch.org Research Wiki with all sorts of additional leads to similar records.
The process here is a way to open up your research and find the records that are online. To do a more complete search, you would also need to continue your efforts into specific catalogs of repositories. You start by searching for the same topics on WorldCat.org and its companion database, Archivegrid.org.
The most common reaction to this method of research is disbelief and skepticism. The reason is that it does not produce a name, date and place instantly. This is the same reaction I get when I suggest that researchers read the county history where they are doing research before starting to look for records. Most researchers simply do not see the connection between knowledge of the history and knowledge of the records in finding their ancestor. I assure you, it works.